Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Johnny Mercer

Today was one of those “this is why I live in New York” experiences. Tuesdays mean another gathering of my lunch group, the Dutch Treat Club, at the National Arts Club. Our membership is made up of people who make their living in the arts, and some are quite high profile. Each week we have a cabaret performance, followed by a speaker. Today’s focus was on Johnny Mercer, one of my favorite songwriters, whose centennial was Nov. 18.

Starting us off were singers Barbara Fasano and her husband, Eric Comstock, who also played piano. Eric shared a quote from Frank Sinatra, a man he admitted wasn’t known as an eloquent speaker, but who got it right with this one: “A Johnny Mercer lyric is all the wit you wish you had and all the love you lost.” They blessed us with a couple of Mercer hits, “I Thought About You” and “This Time the Dream’s on Me” and two non-Mercer numbers, Gershwin’s “Isn’t It a Pity?” and Sondheim’s “Love is Going Around.”

Then our very own Robert Kimball assumed the podium to talk about his new book, The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer. Bob is a musical theatre historian and critic, not to mention a Yale Law School graduate and former member of the Lindsay administration, who has written six previous books about famous lyricists, including ones on Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. He says this one’s his last, and no wonder. What a lot of material! Mercer wrote more than 1,200 lyrics with 230 collaborators before he died of a brain tumor in 1976 at the age of 67. His songs were nominated for 18 Academy Awards and won four of them.

Just hearing about this remarkable life would have been entertainment enough, but we were treated to live performances by our president, the cabaret superstar KT Sullivan. At Bob’s mention of a song, KT launched into a few lyrics from her table nearby. Then, to spice things up, composer Jon Weber leapt to the piano to provide accompaniment and the show really got rolling. Soon we were singing along, wrapping it up with Broadway veteran Tammy Grimes leading us in Moon River, one of my absolute, all-time favorite songs by any writer. If it wasn’t so much fun I probably would have started crying because that song really gets to me “Two drifters, off to see the world. There’s such a lot of world to see. We’re after the same rainbow’s end, waiting round the bend, my huckleberry friend, moon river and me.”

It just doesn’t get much better than that on a cold Tuesday afternoon -- a delicious three-course meal, fabulous entertainment, plenty of wine and good company, in a gorgeous historic mansion in Gramercy Park in the greatest city on the face of the earth. To sing some lyrics Johnny Mercer didn’t write, “I love New York . . .”

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